How Startup Managers Can Motivate Employees in Tough Times

by Simon Rakosi
June 29, 2017

Per new Gallup research, just 15 percent of global employees are engaged at work. This means that most of today’s workers are trudging to the office each day feeling uninspired, bored or—worse—resentful of management.

For startups in particular, building strong leaders within the organization is as much of a survival tactic as it is a competitive advantage. We’ve all seen the cautionary tales in the form of high-growth companies that have struggled to scale their cultures with the demands of their businesses. The result: disengaged employees, high turnover and, sometimes, negative press that threatens the future livelihood of the talent brand.

At rapidly growing companies, it’s easy to prioritize the product over the people. And yet, through the ups and downs that come with a startup’s growth path, instilling strong leadership is critical to the future success of your business. Motivating employees during difficult times can be an especially arduous challenge for new managers in particular. How can you keep people positive and on mission amid the stressors and growing pains that every business goes through?

Here are some guideposts to help you motivate your employees in tough times.

Lead with the positive.

The best startup employees reflect a healthy mix of realism and optimism. During challenging times, transparency and candor are important, and can be used as effective motivation tools for driving urgency and action. That said, negativity can spread like a disease among small teams—especially during tough times.

As a manager leading a team or organization through a crisis, it’s important to emphasize the why behind the challenge. In other words, what’s causing it? Oftentimes, at the startup level at least, these hurdles are a direct result of growth. And growth is good! Reiterate to your team that growing pains are an indicator of progress, and therefore reflect and important and transformative time for the business. Despite the extra hours, effort and headache, these situations are harbingers of momentum.

Over-communicate.

When you address your team regarding a challenge, always have a clear and well-articulated game plan ready to share. Pair the challenge with an attainable solution and a well thought-out roadmap for getting there. Each individual contributor should understand their role within the broader effort.

In addition to more formal, team-wide communications, schedule regular stand ups to pulse check the progress of individual contributors against that goal. More difficult times require a more hands-on approach, and while nobody would advocate micro-management, consistently showing that you’re there to support is one of the best things you can do as a leader during challenging times. Ask transparency from your team, and be transparent with them.

Give props.

Tough times require employees to give a bit more of themselves to the cause. As your team puts in the added effort, be sure to frequently give credit where credit is due. This is especially important when it comes to recognizing smaller milestones within a larger initiative. During a tenuous period of time, leaders who recognize the steps needed to get to an end goal will motivate their team to continue pushing and remain optimistic about the challenges ahead.

Find small ways to thank contributors for the efforts, and don’t be afraid to publicly call out a job well done. For some employees, recognition among one’s peers will be one of the most effective ways to show them that you appreciate their efforts. Other ways to give thanks include awarding an extra PTO day, scheduling a team dinner or purchasing an office gift that everyone can enjoy together.

Show the light at the end of the tunnel.

Beyond laying out a plan for overcoming the challenge at hand, it helps to paint a picture of what life will look like after the storm. What will change in response to going through the challenge? Perhaps you implement a new technology, realize the need for a specialized hire, or rework your approach to tackling a specific project. No matter what this is, be sure your team is aware of the positive long term effects that the experience will yield.

Once you’ve gotten through the tough times, recap the key learnings. Paint a picture of where you were before, and where you stand now. Ideally, this second position is a better one, and one that will position your team to better handle what’s on the horizon.

*****

In a startup setting, optimism and hard work can go a long way. Know that as a leader, your team is not only listening to your words—more importantly, they’re watching your actions. Roll up your sleeves, focus on the end result and celebrate wins (big and small!) to keep employees focused and motivated.

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